A Conversation with Trey Moody
Interview by Bret Shepard
BRET SHEPARD: Climate Reply, to me, seems to investigate what it means to listen—to nature, to another person, to oneself. Certainly images and textures play an important part, but they, too, feel wrapped in the auditory. Can you talk about how you use these sensorial elements in your work?
TREY MOODY: It often feels like I’m writing from a memory, or at least a vague, remembered mood. Sometimes these are actual memories; sometimes I mistake something imagined for a memory. In both cases, sight and texture are very much present, but sound usually isn’t. But it’s the auditory, it seems, that can contain the most mystery. Hear that wind outside? Rather, hear those leaves rustling because of the wind? Or was it something else altogether rustling the leaves? And thinking of the chapbook, which seems to inhabit an eerie kind of space—where weather and ghosts (another manifestation of landscape) are being listened to—it seems that sound has the most potential to include both positive and negative affirmations, sometimes simultaneously. Was that the floor creaking, or the house shifting, or the heater? It isn’t until I see a sound’s source that I know for sure, but I like dwelling in that place of speculation.
BS: Yeah, you have a way of phrasing that is unique and mysterious. Yet, the syntax remains open, creating sense by surprising the mind into a new sense. Does this happen in revision? Do you compose with it in mind? This is, in part, a question about your process. But I’m also interested in your thoughts on language. What surprises/excites you about language?
TM: In Climate Reply, I remember wanting to overload and confuse sensory experience at times, which happened while composing and revising, though a little differently with each poem. I’m pretty sure the syntax and phrasing in “We Didn’t Believe” was mostly deliberate during the original composition, but the newer poems in the chapbook were made using revision as another opportunity to generate material. In “We Use Spoons Mostly,” for example, the sensory experience was built mostly while revising, through a sort of process of accumulation. I remember sitting down to work on an early draft of that poem and looked through the window, so that moment, included in the poem, ended up offering me another way into the draft even though it had nothing (or everything?) to do with the poem’s original impulse.
But these days, what excites me about language is when it’s simple and direct, on the one hand, while creating surprising juxtapositions as the poem builds, on the other. When I was younger I thought obscurity led to mystery and surprise, but there’s a lot to be said about the charged mythology in a straightforward neighborly conversation or looking at a cheese grater a little too long. Poems made of this kind of direct language seem to work so well, to my mind, because most readers can at least find a way in, making them comfortable enough to let their guard down, which creates a pretty good place for genuine surprise. Not that my grandma will be reading Mary Ruefle or Michael Earl Craig anytime soon, but their poems seem very friendly at first glance. Of course, like most neighbors, the longer you listen to them the weirder—and more interesting—they become.
I’m glad you asked about the compositional process because it’s a fascinating thing—I move from notebook to typewriter to computer, always in different orders, always at different times during the day. But I know some people work better with a more structured, streamlined process. How does the compositional process work for you? And what environmental/geographic factors, if any, alter this process?
BS: I do know people that have a streamlined process for writing. I’d even say a rigid process. But I’m not like that. You mention alternating where you write, which makes sense to me. I’m always walking around my apartment; sometimes after a few lines I find the need to leave the chair and throw a plastic basketball around or something. I’m very antsy when writing, even when I think it’s going well. But I mostly write on the computer. During my MFA, Saint Mary’s College (CA) was giving away old typewriters, just handing them out for free. The English grad students were stoked. But, as it turns out, I don’t prefer to write on a typewriter. That may be strange to some people, maybe even offensive to those who swear by the typewriter’s personality. But I enjoy the relationship I have with my laptop. What determines when you move from writing space to writing space, the computer to the typewriter, for example? Is it an impulse that comes quickly? It sounds like there is some time in between the moves. When do you combine material?
TM: Yeah, ignoring those needy typewriters is very offensive! But I like how you describe your compositional demeanor as being “antsy,” which I totally share with you—those fringes just before and after being completely focused have this weird energy, but you’ve described it perfectly.
These days (and by “these days” I mean the last few years or so) my writing practices are what they are because of my family. I’m married and recently became a father, both of which are awesome, but I don’t always have the luxury of making thought-out decisions as to where or how I write. That said, I like to keep a few notebooks and legal pads around the house for convenience. Almost everything I write begins by hand, but how the next drafts get written is determined by time, I guess. I do know that I really neglect my typewriter when I’m teaching (and when the baby’s sleeping, as it’s a manual—the typewriter, not the baby). So I type mostly in summers. But I try to make it as long as possible in a draft before going to the computer. No good reason, really, except not liking what I was generating on the computer.
But I do like to let things simmer, so something written in a notebook or legal pad may go a few days, weeks, or months before it’s rewritten.
BS: Certainly the poems in Climate Reply are well crafted with surprising language and turns. But what might surprise people about you when you’re not reading/writing/thinking poems?
TM: As you know, Bret, I do like playing basketball, preferably weekly, and watching basketball, preferably the Spurs. Though I’m certainly not reading/writing/thinking poems when doing these things, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a poem about our competitive on-court relationship.
I also enjoy the Twin Bing candy bar—not really a “bar,” per se, but it’s at least the best chocolate/peanut/cherry concoction out of Sioux City, Iowa. It puts a bounce in my step, that’s for sure. Steve Almond’s Candyfreak includes a chapter worth reading on the Twin Bing and its maker. If you’re brave enough to buy and then bite into one, the Midwestern gas station cashier who just sold it to you will observe many emotions on your face—mainly confusion.
Now let me ask you something about your poems, which often seem situated in rich, vivid, particular places—are these places real? Or are they imagined? Or both? And could you talk about how the negotiation between these elements relates to place in your writing?
BS: I suppose they begin as real places, though the imagination often filters that beginning and transforms it into something different, a poem. At least I hope that’s what’s happening. So both. The process of filtering fascinates me. It’s a process of obstruction that results in reconstruction. I often find myself re-obstructing places in poems. Your thoughts on sound seem to suggest something similar. What noise happens in the shadows? I’m reminded of Jack Spicer’s poem “Thing Language,” where he asserts the lack of singularity in listening to poetry (“No one listens to poetry”). In part, I take this to mean that there is an inner “hearing” that occurs when reading poetry. But it is not singular. Rather, a reader constructs the sound from the poem in relation to memories of hearing words and inflections, etc. Of course Spicer also declares that things don’t intend or depend on being listened to. Yet we do listen to the ocean and it means something sometimes to some people. When I read some of the poems in Climate Reply, for example, I feel invited into this process, this dynamic relationship. The mystery and possibility interest me. As you say about the rustling leaves, it could be anything causing the rustling.
Can you talk about putting the manuscript together? There are entire books dedicated to situating poetry manuscripts, so this process clearly intrigues writers. And you have a knack for it; another of your chapbooks was recently published (Once Was a Weather [Greying Ghost, 2011]). Climate Reply weaves the “Dear Ghost” poems throughout the book. Was this integral to shaping the whole?
TM: Although I’m not all that interested in narrative, I do like narrative echoes, which is probably why I decided to weave “Dear Ghosts” throughout Climate Reply. I also wove part of a longer sequence called “A Weather” throughout Once Was a Weather for similar reasons. It’s difficult for me to think of a collection as a consistent project; either that, or my nature is to write single, discrete poems or sequences. When I’m writing, I’m excited about the poem, not the book—otherwise I might’ve tried writing novels or something. But then the problem becomes how in the hell to organize these things with some kind of cohesion. Obviously, looking for ways poems resonate with one another in sequence helps—but like writing, this is largely an intuitive act, so there’s nothing quantifiable about it that reassures me I can do it again. So threading a longer sequence throughout, for me, seems to create a kind of anchor or refrain that assures the reader they aren’t lost. Or maybe it’s just a gimmick, like an advertising technique or something.
BS: What books are you reading currently? Any shout-outs you want to give other poets work?
TM: I’m teaching Simic and Strand’s Another Republic, so I’ve been re-reading some of my favorites like Ponge, Ritsos, Follain, Popa. Two newer books I’m teaching are Jeff Alessandrelli’s Erik Satie Watusies His Way into Sound and Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley—both awesome and worth checking out. I just read Shannon Tharp’s The Cost of Walking, which was really good, as was Pam Rehm’s The Larger Nature. I’ll end with these soon-to-be published books that I’ve been looking forward to: Nick Courtright’s Punchline; Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick’s translations of Ernst Meister; and Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey.
How about you—what have you been reading lately?
BS: You mention some really good ones. I’m using Jeff Alessandrelli’s book in one my classes, so I’m reading that, too. I’ve also been reading Rebecca Farivar’s Correct Animal and Sarah Valentine’s translations of Gennady Aygi, called Into the Snow. And I’ve recently been into Kevin Goodan’s book Winter Tenor. Right in front of me I have Christopher Arigo’s In the Archives, which came out a couple of years ago, but is really great.
I have a few short questions to ask. I’m always curious as to how people answer things outside the scope of their work. Costume parties or cocktail parties?
TM: Pity parties?
BS: Worst advice you’ve ever received?
TM: “Shave your chest.”
BS: Favorite 90’s movie?
TM: It’s between The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but I don’t think those really count as “90’s movies,” do they? So then my first-tier nominees are Babe, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Home Alone. Second-tier are Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Cliffhanger, and Jurassic Park. So many good ones!
BS: Worst fashion choice you’ve ever made? (In sixth grade, I used to roll the bottom of my jeans up.)
TM: Around fifth and sixth grade, I wore a painted, metal yin yang pendant strung on a black leather necklace. Even worse, I’d wear it hanging outside of my then favorite T-shirt, featuring a Dennis Rodman caricature whose hair color changed with the temperature. Is this what catharsis feels like?